America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise Steerforth, 2007, 288 pp., $24.95
With the book Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark have produced a fascinating, complex and extremely detailed account of Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb. David Armstrong and Joseph Trento have written a similar book on the topic, America and the Islamic Bomb: The Deadly Compromise, that is slightly less dense and therefore more accessible. Levy and Scott-Clark have relied too heavily, however, upon very few sources (which have a definite axe to grind of their own), rather than carefully crosschecking their data and presenting a more balanced view. Armstrong and Trento, on the other hand, rely too heavily upon another, earlier book, The Islamic Bomb (1981), by Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, as acknowledged by their many references to it.
Both books are journalistic “gotchas”, where some supposedly secret history, adorned with a simplistic plot, implicates the U.S. government variously of ignorance, incompetence, shortsightedness, bad faith or deliberate evil. Like all books in this category, these two illustrate the maxim that a little bit of knowledge can be a misleading, if not always a dangerous, thing.
The story in Deception starts with Pakistan’s desperate determination, led by then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to catch up with India after its “peaceful” nuclear explosion caught the world by surprise in 1974. It stars the infamous A.Q. Khan, who brought invaluable knowledge from his work with the European uranium enrichment consortium and developed an elaborate, worldwide network of witting and unwitting suppliers. Levy and Scott-Clark take us through the period when Pakistan and A.Q. Khan, together and separately, supply their nuclear expertise to other countries, most notably North Korea, but also Iran and Libya.
America and the Islamic Bomb begins the story at an earlier date—in the 1960s—with Bhutto even then playing a central role, but at a lower level. Armstrong and Trento discuss how Bhutto obtained assistance from other Muslim governments in 1969, though they don’t clarify the issue amid the details. Armstrong and Trento also deal with the very earliest days of the development of U.S. nuclear weapons and related policies, up to and including the Eisenhower Administration’s 1957–58 Atoms for Peace initiative. They examine the initiative’s premise that providing nuclear technology assistance to other countries would dissuade them from developing programs with military applications. This naive belief, the authors aver, was exploited by both India and Pakistan as each country, obsessed with the other’s nuclear activities, ran the race to develop a nuclear weapon.
Both books lay out in great detail the role of the United States in Pakistan’s evolving nuclear program, but details alone cannot equip authors with an ability to comment wisely on very nuanced questions. Precisely because both books seem to substitute a volume of detail for a judicious sense of context, some episodes are detailed to death while others are virtually ignored. As illustration of the authors’ lack of familiarity with how the U.S. government actually conducts its foreign policy, neither book does justice to the significance of the debate over the October 1990 Pressler Amendment on U.S.-Pakistani relations at what was a critical moment, and neither analyzes the considerable impact of that law on subsequent developments.
Both books do get certain things right. In addition to the role of the United States, the crucial role of China in assisting both the development of the bomb and missile delivery systems is spelled out, as are the complicated Pakistani entanglements with India, Afghanistan, internal Islamist political groups, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. All of these affected Pakistan’s nuclear program, as well as the policies and practices of the United States—of that there can be no doubt. But Levy and Scott-Clark accuse successive U.S. administrations of deliberate complicity in Pakistan’s nuclear program. Both books implicitly accept nonproliferation as the highest foreign policy goal, even above thwarting the Soviet Union and the spread of communism, without ever discussing—let alone arguing—why this should be so. And both books seem to share the objective of painting Pakistan as simply perfidious, without recognizing that it, like any country, has legitimate national security interests of its own. Alas, this is not how things were, or are. Having both been in the thick of it diplomatically, we can testify to the inevitability of difficult trade-offs, imperfect information and occasional miscommunications, but also real conflicting interests.
Here, in essence, is what really happened. Pakistan’s nuclear program was revving up just when A.Q. Khan’s entreaties to assist were accepted by Z.A. Bhutto in 1975. In 1976, Khan was authorized to establish a lavishly funded uranium enrichment project, drawing upon his connections abroad—this in competition with Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Agency, which was pursuing a plutonium reprocessing approach. That same year, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger confronted Bhutto over the reprocessing program and was firmly rebuffed. The United States successfully pressed France to drop its plans to build a reprocessing plant (neither book mentions this), but A.Q. Khan’s project continued. By 1979, the Carter Administration had applied sanctions against Pakistan for the first time over its nuclear program, but with little effect. The Carter Administration then soon deemed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to be more important than Pakistan’s nuclear plans. Congress agreed and sanctions were scrapped.
During the 1980s, A.Q. Khan moved ahead. As both sets of authors point out, China provided design details and other assistance. Khan’s experts were able to procure vital parts covertly in the United States and elsewhere. With the Afghan mujaheddin fighting Soviet forces and being supplied through Pakistan, the Reagan Administration and Congress were willing to give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt when intelligence was uncertain. However, with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, all U.S. government agencies agreed that Pakistan had crossed the cut-off line drawn by Congress. Neither newly elected President George H.W. Bush nor Congress was as lenient as before, but the government of Pakistan paid no attention to repeated warnings by the Bush Administration. As a result, in 1990 sanctions were imposed again (to Pakistan’s stupefaction), including an embargo on the F-16s Pakistan considered vital for its conventional defense against India. U.S. sanctions notwithstanding, Pakistan pressed ahead with its nuclear program, but, as the authors point out, adopted an entirely new delivery-system strategy, turning from American F-16s to missiles from North Korea.
In 1993, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto personally and knowingly, despite her disingenuous protestations quoted in Deception, paved the way for A.Q. Khan to supply enrichment technology to North Korea and to obtain missiles to carry the smaller warheads it was rushing to develop. Until the new missiles suddenly appeared in Pakistan, the U.S. government was in the dark. (The U.S. government, by the way, was just as surprised when India tested its nuclear weapon in 1998.) And despite Pakistan Army Chief of Staff Mirza Aslam Beg’s open admission to General Norman Schwarzkopf in early 1990 that Pakistan had agreed to provide nuclear assistance to Iran (carefully documented by the authors), the United States never followed up and was not really in the know until the late 1990s. Nor was the U.S. government aware of A.Q. Khan’s activities with Libya. (The Pakistan-Iran nuclear connection was severed when General Asif Nawaz replaced Beg in mid 1991. Nawaz was a much more long-term thinker and a much more hard-headed officer, not taken in by the romance of Khomeini’s Revolution. Transactions with Libya were essentially commercial, not ideological, in nature.)
The bitterly resented rupture in U.S. relations with Pakistan in 1990, and Washington’s withdrawal from Afghan affairs, came at a time when Islamic nationalism was blossoming, stimulated by successes in defeating the Soviet Union. The sudden absence of a U.S. presence contributed significantly to the anti-U.S. attitudes of the Pakistani government and military, as well as various Pakistani and Afghan Islamist groups. As both sets of authors do recognize, Prime Minister Bhutto made a political alliance with a powerful Pakistani Islamist political organization, Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam (the JUI), and together they brought life to the Taliban, which was followed by al-Qaeda’s arrival there. Contrary to the books’ assertions, however, this was not an initiative of then-Major General Pervez Musharraf. He was not in a major policymaking position then. Nor was his role a critical one in Pakistan’s subsequent support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, including facilitation of access to some of A.Q. Khan’s top scientists. (Fortunately, these efforts failed to produce anything tangible.) In 1998, India’s nuclear tests were followed by those of Pakistan, as U.S. entreaties and promises of renewed assistance fell on ears that had been deafened by Pakistan’s nationalism and its long confrontation with India.
Then, suddenly, Afghan-related events once again caused a complete reversal of U.S. policy toward Pakistan’s nuclear program. After 9/11, the new George W. Bush Administration offered to drop sanctions in exchange for Pakistan’s support against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. President Musharraf accepted and Congress passed the necessary legislation. Khan’s activities were again marked off the top of the U.S. agenda, even as his network’s assistance to North Korea and Libya continued. Levy and Scott-Clark’s conclusion that Pakistan had offered to provide Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons or nuclear technology is an extremely bold assertion, but one with absolutely no foundation in fact. (The same goes for Saudi Arabia, although there does appear to have been some serious discussion on that front.)
In late 2003, when hard evidence surfaced of Pakistan’s dealings with Libya, Musharraf finally cracked down on Khan. Under strong pressure from the U.S. government, he reorganized the command and control structure of Pakistan’s entire nuclear program to provide greater accountability and more security. This included both technological and human improvements (for example, new personnel screening techniques). A.Q. Khan has never been questioned directly. However, both the United States and the United Kingdom appear satisfied that the information they have been given by the Government of Pakistan, along with intelligence they have gathered independently, shows that his network has been dismantled, at least as far as Pakistan is concerned—although Levy and Scott-Clark argue otherwise.
Both Deception and America and the Islamic Bomb make the unwarranted assumption that successive U.S. administrations were fully knowledgeable of the evolution of Pakistan’s nuclear military program as it took place, and of Pakistan’s dealings with other governments, and deliberately turned a blind eye to them. Both books fail to take into account the demonstrated weaknesses of U.S. intelligence capabilities (especially when it comes to WMD), or Pakistan’s abilities to deceive the United States. Both ignore the possibility that other considerations—such as the need to provide assistance to Pakistan in the face of threats from Afghanistan—legitimately had a higher priority for the United States than Pakistan’s nuclear program. Armstrong and Trento even go so far as to state that the United States did not have to sacrifice its non-proliferation goals to gain Pakistani cooperation to support the mujaheddin, but they offer no persuasive argument to that effect.
None of the authors of these two books seems to fully realize the limits of the pressure that the United States (or any country, for that matter) can apply, short of war, to Pakistan—and to most other governments. Pakistan’s fierce determination to push ahead with its nuclear program was simply greater than the severe sanctions threatened and implemented by the United States. Maybe too many international spy intrigues have played on television and movie screens. Maybe journalists like Levy and Scott-Clark, Armstrong and Trento, actually believe that foreign policy reality imitates bad entertainment art. It doesn’t. And, at least in real life, the U.S. government isn’t always the villain.